Monday, December 10, 2012

Resiliency: It's Not Just a Catch Phrase; It's a Way of Life

Day 10 was my post on building resiliency into our lives to help us weather whatever may come.

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I have worked from home since 1998. In the early days of my home-work-life, I took the title of Virtual Assistant to describe what I do. Basically, a V.A. is a remote secretary. Most of my clients were (and still are) small business owners and/or self-employed entrepreneurs, and the work mostly involves typing/copywriting, transcription, Internet research, database construction and maintenance, and some website design and maintenance. My slogan has always been “I can do anything from my home office that an onsite secretary can do, except file” (as an added benefit to hiring someone like me, I could now add, “… with no federally mandated health benefits required”). Because I am an independent contractor, hiring me has worked out especially well for business people who don’t have an office space for me and/or only need occasional, temporary administrative work done.

One of my clients was a Human Resources Management Consultant, which means that he was be hired by organizations to evaluate their employee/employer relationships and help resolve any issues that the organization might be having. He was also a motivation speaker and author, and as I was occasionally hired to transcribe his talks or type his essays for the web, I learned a lot about the human resources world.

One of the hot topics in his writing had to do with workplace resiliency, which he defined as “a person’s capacity to handle difficulties, demands, and high pressure without becoming stressed”, and he explains why having this quality is not just important, but paramount to business success. Part of his job was to teach management how to cultivate this particular quality in their employees.

I was very fortunate to have that client, because even though furthering my knowledge and education was certainly not part of our contractual agreement, I did learn a lot about corporate culture – the good, the bad and the ugly – and in gaining those lessons, I was also more prepared for the kind of life that I see us careening toward, especially here in the US.

As my client told the managers with whom he worked, resilient employees are able to better handle the daily on-the-job trials, but his lesson isn’t just applicable to a workplace environment. In fact, the ability to “bounce back” and to adapt rather than react to the global changes we’ve been experiencing and (most experts agree) will continue to experience on an increasingly accelerated pace will be even more important in the days to come.

A key component to workplace resiliency (according to my client) lies in giving employees some control. He says, “The more control employees have over their work, the more they can handle heavy workloads, major organizational changes, and difficult pressure without becoming stressed.”

I maintain that this sentiment is even more applicable to our non-work daily lives. Those who have taken control over their daily needs are far more resilient when there are “major changes” in their lifestyles, and we’ve seen proof of this resiliency recently, even. During Hurricane Sandy, those who had prepared with some stored water, food and generators, not only didn’t panic, but also shared their bounty with their neighbors – like the guy who organized a movie-night-on-the-lawn that turned into a neighborhood block party and potluck dinner.

The typical, suburban lifestyle has rendered most of us impotent when it comes to survivability. We live in an environment in which every single daily need is trucked into us. Our clothes are manufactured in some foreign locale which most of us will only ever see in the movies. Our food comes from a grocery store whose shelves are stocked with products that are grown and/or processed hundreds or thousands of miles from where we purchase it. The electricity that we so value is produced in plants that can be hundreds of miles from where we live and may use a fuel (coal, oil or natural gas) that is mined on the other side of the world. The electricity is delivered using a decaying and vulnerable infrastructure that is, as we’re seeing, increasingly unreliable.

When things, like the economic hiccup of 2007, the roller-coaster ride of oil prices in 2008, and the increasingly more devastating storms since 2005, cause an interruption in deliveries of food or other services/supplies, we grow fearful and this fear leads to anger. We are afraid, because we can’t control what is happening.

Our suburban lifestyles have robbed us of any control we might once had, but the only way to get back control is to take it. Contrary to what we may believe, no matter one’s circumstances, one can have some degree of control with regard to meeting life’s basic necessities.

Back in the 1970s, when I was in junior high school, we learned in our social studies class that human beings needed three things to survive: clothing, water and food. Over the years, sociologists have added “love” as a basic necessity. I would amend “love” to “community”, and as humans are social animals, I would agree that community is paramount to our survivability as a species.

Interestingly, there was never any mention of electricity or gasoline powered anything on that list of things we need as humans to survive, and so, when we are working toward being more resilient, the things on which we should concentrate most heavily, especially if we’re just starting to work toward being more resilient, are ensuring that we can meet those three (or four) basic needs.

The first is clothing. With the proper clothes, survival is possible even when humans are exposed to the most extremes of temperature. I was impressed the other day by a man who was clearly living outside. I was in line behind him at a local bakery/deli, and what I noticed was his clothing. His heavy-duty military fatigue jacket – the familiar OD green that was worn by our soldiers during the Vietnam Era – was draped over a chair. He had on a vest with pockets (to store change and other things) over a flannel shirt, and probably several other layers, maybe including a thermal shirt, that I couldn’t see. His pants were wool, and he had a stout pair of walking shoes on his feet. It was pretty clear to me that he knew how to dress for spending more time outside than inside.

While most of us will never experience the trials of living without a roof, his example is a good one for us all to remember. Dressing appropriate to our climate makes us more resilient to fluctuations in both weather patterns and increasing fuel prices. Richard Proenneke lived, mostly alone, in a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. In his documentary, there’s a scene in which he quips that his cabin is a “balmy 48°.” Most of us shudder to think of living “indoors” in a room that’s a mere 48°, but the fact is, with the right clothing, in particular, the right clothing material, we can live (not just survive) in temperatures that are significantly cooler than the 72° ambient temperature at which most of us try to keep our houses year round. People survived, nay THRIVED, in cold climates for centuries, without electricity or fossil fuels.

The second necessity is water. In the suburbs, most of us get our water from a municipal water supply. Anyone who has gone without water when a main breaks or who has had to boil water when the water supply has been contaminated, knows how vulnerable that source of water is. Since water is a very basic necessity for most living things, it’s pretty smart to be prepared in whatever small ways one can be. For those who can legally harvest rainwater, having a couple of 55 gallon food-grade barrels, or even four or five 5-gallon buckets (which can often be collected from bakeries at very low-cost or free) is a very good idea. At very least, having a two and a half gallon Brita water filter (that’s kept full at all times) on the counter is a good move. Any is better than none in an emergency.

Even though, of the things we need to survive, food is at the bottom of the list of essentials, it is the one that gets the most attention. We hear a lot about people starving, and even though water scarcity and a lack of clean water is a greater concern on a global scale than food scarcity, we hear more about hunger. Diarrhea, which is often a result of water-borne pathogens, is the second leading cause of death in children under the age of five, and ranks higher than malnutrition, which is number five..

That is not to say that food is not important, because it is, which is why it is such a concern, and why, those of us who live in the suburbs and rely on other people to grow and deliver our food, are becoming increasingly more fearful as food prices continue to increase. There is enough arable crop land worldwide to feed our population. The problem is that food has become a commodity, and the price and availability is controlled by those who have money. Those people send their food products to the place where they can get the most money for their wares, and invariably that place is the Western world.

Unfortunately, as the global economy continues to buckle and as significant climatic changes continue to wreak havoc on crop production, we find that we're not as able to produce as much food. Droughts and flooding have caused major crop failures, which has, in turn, driven the cost of food higher. In 2007 and 2008, there were significant and major crop failures which caused food prices to double and triple, resulting in food riots. In addition, industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and as the price of oil per barrel increases, so does the price of the food that’s grown using 20th Century food production models.

The comforting fact is that anyone, anywhere, can grow food, especially those of us who are lucky enough to live in the suburbs. More than 60% of my quarter acre lot is being used in food production (my house and driveway comprise about 18% my lot and the septic tank and leach field take up most of the front yard). Even those living in HOAs can grow some small things, in containers on a deck, for instance, or planting edible perennials in place of the ornamentals. Those living in apartments don’t need to feel left out of food production, as even they can grow something. As with storing water, something is better than nothing. I am not one of those people who advocate storing up wheat berries in preparation for the end of the world as we know it, but having a few on hand is not a bad idea – but not for the reasons other people give. Wheat makes a really nice sprouted food. Wheat sprouts are sweet and highly nutritious. They can be used in salads, on sandwiches, and in soups. They can be juiced, and even made into a sprouted bread. For those who are gluten-free, there are plenty of other grains and seeds that can be sprouted, including things like broccoli and radish. Sprouting is simple, requires nothing more than a jar with a lid, some water, and a few seeds. It can be done year-round and doesn’t require any special lighting or temperature control.

Resiliency is about taking control. Over time, those of us living in the suburbs gave over our control, often so that we could make more money, but as things start costing more, as we become less or unemployed, as circumstances, like catastrophic weather events, further wrest control from our grasp, we need to be taking steps to insulate ourselves from those potentialities.

Knowing how to dress and having appropriate clothes will help us if we lose the ability to heat our homes. Knowing where to access some water will help us if the water supply is interrupted or contaminated. Growing, even just a few sprouts, will ensure that, in the face of increasing food prices and, potentially, limited food supplies, we won’t starve.

No one knows what our future holds. We could be moving toward even worse times than we have ever known, or things could snap right back to the lifestyles we Westerners enjoyed through the latter half of the twentieth century. Either way, having control over the very basic necessities of human survival (clothing, water, and food) will ensure that we are resilient enough to make it through. That fact is that even in booming economic times, I enjoy my garden and fresh sprouts during the winter, my favorite socks are wool, and water from my Brita just tastes better to me. In the end, it’s not about preparing for bad times, but rather about cultivating a lifestyle that allows us to be in control – no matter what happens.

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